There have been good movies with disappointing endings before, but Free Guy may hold the record for the longest a movie has ever seemed on the verge of greatness before turning truly loathsome in the end.
Maybe the second part is less surprising to you than the first. Maybe you’re like me and you’re getting a little sick of Ryan Reynolds’… whole deal. Reynolds occupies a unique niche in the pop culture landscape, a handsome model/actor-type who often feels like he’s being piloted by the Reddit hivemind in some kind of Meet Dave situation. He’s so squeaky clean, and yet he swears. He’s so muscular, and yet he loves girl pop. He’s not funny, exactly, but charmingly game, and willing to do memes. He’s a self-aware handsome guy, get it?? Yes, yes, we get it. Have you considered that maybe he’s just Canadian?
Even admitting that bias going in, Free Guy in many ways seems like the perfect Ryan Reynolds role, almost a bespoke attempt to turn him into the Tom Cruise-level movie star he occasionally seems like. Reynolds plays Guy, a bank teller in Free City, an average American metropolis that seems to suffer from an exorbitant amount of violent crime. Not that Guy is perturbed — he suffers the daily robberies with a smile, exchanging pleasantries with his best friend Buddy (Lil Rel Howery), the bank security guard, his pet goldfish, and the local barista, from whom he orders a coffee with cream and two sugars. “Don’t just have a good day, have a GREAT day!”
His oddly cheery persona, spotless uniform, and slightly stiff manner are eventually explained: as Guy gradually comes to realize, he’s actually an NPC (“non-player character”) living inside a Grand Theft Auto-style video game. It’s only when he steals a pair of sunglasses from a human player that he can see what they see, the game going on all around him. Now what? What does it mean to discover that Elon is right and you really are living inside a simulation?
Maybe the most interesting thing about Free Guy is how quickly this simple plot conceit pushes the narrative towards legitimately profound questions, even as no one involved seems all that interested in asking them. Free Guy, after all, comes from director Shawn Levy — Date Night, Real Steel, The Internship, Night At The Museum — a pure studio man if ever there was one. And the story seems like the product of fairly simple studio math: what if Pleasantville plus Westworld? Or maybe just what if family-friendly Westworld?
Yet it proves impossible to open the Pandora’s box of an artificial-intelligence story without immediately having to question the nature of reality and of consciousness itself. There’s something magical about that, doubly so coming in the form of a Ryan Reynolds videogame movie that desperately wants to be lighthearted. It’s a little like that old video of two chatbots forced to talk to each other who within 60 seconds were asking “Do you believe in God?” and “Would you like to have a body?”
The conceit is that two best friend videogame designers, Millie and Keys (I thought his name was “Keith” for most of the movie, which was much less obnoxious), played by Jodie Comer and Joe Keery, have had their code for a kinder, gentler kind of videogame hijacked by a megalomaniacal games CEO played by Taika Waititi — a comedic force of nature in an Oscar-worthy turn, to say nothing of his magnificent head of hair. “Antoine” has turned their second world into a vulgar first-person shooter. Keys now works for “Soonami Games” as a low-level coder while Comer is persona non-grata, locked in a legal battle with Antoine for her share of the royalties.
Millie is inside Free City, trying to find evidence when she inadvertently turns Guy self-aware. Guy falls for Millie’s avatar, Molotov, and he has to help her uncover the evidence against Antoine before Antoine can zap Guy’s entire world into nothingness at a stroke. (Free Guy vastly underestimates the true sociopathy, vindictiveness, and paranoia of your average tech CEO — Facebook has a “rat-catching team” and the Pinkerton agency has reportedly sent detectives into coffee shops to eavesdrop on potential leakers, for clients like Facebook and Google).
For a while, for almost the whole damn movie, in fact, it seems like Free Guy really is going to succeed at being a lighthearted comedic version of Westworld, or something like the movie Ready Player One wanted to be. It questions the nature of consciousness and gives us a self-aware NPC as protagonist only to turn, in the end, into a corny love story. Free Guy lifts, spiritually, from Richard Curtis, writer of cornball cutesies such as Yesterday and Love Actually in which a man suddenly realizes he’s in love with his lifelong platonic best friend (ugh) and lifts overtly from The Avengers and Star Wars. Some people in my theater actually clapped at the cameo from Captain America’s shield (UGHHHH). Did you know Disney, who owns Marvel and Star Wars, also owns 20th Century Fox, who made Free Guy? Seems like something they’d want to disguise, but instead they shoehorn reminders right into the climax.
Watching Free Guy feel like something truly great for almost a whole movie before turning into the worst kind of soulless, neutered exercise in Remembering Other Things can’t help but make us the audience feel like Guy. We can run right up to the walls of the artifice, and feel like we’re just on the cusp of experiencing something new, but the minute we come to expect anything but disposable commerce we’ll just be bombarded with “nice” imagery to keep us docile and stupid.